Your browser is no longer supported

For the best possible experience using our website we recommend you upgrade to the newest version of your browser.

Your browser appears to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of Construction News, please enable cookies in your browser.

Welcome to the Construction News site. As we have relaunched, you will have to sign in once now and agree for us to use cookies, so you won't need to log in each time you visit our site.
Learn more

Has Network Rail opened the door to a new railway age?

In the heart of rural Gloucestershire in the Forest of Dean village of Blaisdon is a pub called the Red Hart. It often does a cracking mussels and chips and, on some occasions, the pub quiz is known to get a bit feisty.

You could visit by train, if the line was still open. But, as with many former rail lines, instead of an hourly service from Ross-on-Wye to Gloucester chugging along the route, a couple of cows have instead made the impressions left in the grass from the former tracks their home.

The rail line is not likely to re-open anytime soon, but when it comes to taking a fresh look at the nation’s former (and new) rail infrastructure, the game could be about to change.

Network Rail has unveiled plans to open up its side of running the network to private finance in a way which, if handled right, could bring about a revolution in how the railways work.

At the heart of the plans put in place by the Hansford Review, and accepted by Network Rail in its response, is the idea that the railway infrastructure operator does not have to play a central role in all rail projects.

Instead, if a private financier or firm can come up with a good idea, or project that it would like to put forward, Network Rail is willing to listen.

With the heavy caveat that safety must not be sacrificed, this is broadly a good plan, and Balfour Beatty CEO Leo Quinn and Costain chief Andrew Wyllie lent their support to the proposals.

Mr Quinn said it could “unlock exciting opportunities to invest and improve the UK’s rail network”.

Out is the carefully planned, half-decade long, static central procurement and investment programme, and in its place we could see a new, industry-led landscape that envisages projects, be they lines, signalling, stations or track expansion – as long as there is private cash to pay for it.

Lest we forget that when Network Rail was taken onto the public books, the government seriously explored the option of privatising the operator, only to decide against it in the face of opposition and concern that it could become another Railtrack.

But the issue of investing in the railways without adding an extra financial burden to taxpayers has not gone away. Transport minister Chris Grayling has been reluctant to put his name to any firm spending commitments, delaying the decision on future Network Rail funding last month.

There is an argument that this kind of shake-up is exactly what Network Rail needs. One former employee at the body once told me that getting any idea off the ground was an excruiating process, such is the risk-averse culture and resistance to change within the organisation. 

In similar style to the way the Midlands Engine project fleshed out in time for MIPIM in 2016 with a hefty £14.4bn of projects, will we be seeing UKTI heading off on trade missions around the globe with a shopping list of railway schemes to entice inward investors in the near future?

A Network Rail spokesperson said a pipeline of potential projects would be released later this year, but the plan was to welcome ideas from outside the rail client as much as to promote their own.

One such example is the agreement between NR and private firm Resonate, which has seen a new traffic management system introdced on the western routes. It is paid for privately, with the savings shared between NR and the firm. Propositions such as these must be music to Mr Grayling’s ears and injects a measure of innovation into the UK’s rail network that could lead to further enhancements.

In a way, the railways are returning to their roots. The London underground, the New York subway and the original railway lines such as the Great Western Main Line were originally all private enterprises. The East West Rail Consortium, a combination of local authorities and other bodies that have promoted the plans for a line reconnecting Oxford and Cambridge, is another example that may become more commonplace in the near future.

So, will we be seeing a privately financed Euston or Clapham Junction revamp any time soon? Who knows. But with the door now open, the next decade allows many more opportunities to present themselves. It may even lead to the cows being evicted from their home in Blaisdon.

Hear about Network Rail’s future plans

Network Rail chief executive Mark Carne will deliver a keynote speech at the Construction News Summit on 21 November. 

Neil Thompson, commercial & development director at Network Rail, will also speak on a panel discussing future infrastructure. The panel will feature Highways England’s chief executive Jim O’Sullivan; Transport for West Midlands MD Laura Shoaf and Transport for the North.

The CN Summit is split into infrastructure (21 November) and property/housing (22 November).

More than 85 top industry speakers will be appearing at the two-day Summit at the Hilton Bankside, London. 

Book your place at the CN Summit now and get 10 per cent off using the code CNSUM10.

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment

Please remember that the submission of any material is governed by our Terms and Conditions and by submitting material you confirm your agreement to these Terms and Conditions. Links may be included in your comments but HTML is not permitted.